Résiste: Reflecting on France’s Protests

by Aralena Malone-Leroy

Prouve que tu existes
Cherche ton bonheur partout, va,
Refuse ce monde égoïste
Suis ton cœur qui insiste
Ce monde n’est pas le tien, viens,
Bats-toi, signe et persiste

- Résiste, France Gall, 1981
Resist! Prove that you exist! ... Refuse this selfish world. … Fight, make your mark, and persist! came to my mind while I listened to yet another group of protesters hurl words of indignation at the pension reforms proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration this summer. These celebrated lyrics by France Gall, first broadcast in the early 80s, speak to the Gallic instinct of not accepting political change sitting down.

Throughout the month of October, strikes and sit-ins immobilized public services, transportation, and intra-European freight traffic. While most strikes were organized by unions, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter played a new role among the younger activist set around the country. The French turned out in record numbers, an estimated 3.5 million on October 12, to protest the increase in retirement age.

The bill, first discussed by the Minister of Labor Eric Woerth in April of 2010, and effective as of November 10, proposes to increase the retirement age of a certain sector of civil servants from 60 to 62 by 2018, eventually reaching 67 by 2023. Other clauses, such as mandatory pension contributions designed for the private sector and fines for businesses that fail to implement plans to close gender salary gaps, were overshadowed by the lack of negotiations with the major union forces when the bill was presented.

As an American, it is hard not to attribute the vehemence and resistance to some cultural specificity left over from the 1789 revolution. Photos of overturned cars on fire, storefronts destroyed, and young rioters in ski masks throwing Molotov cocktails adds to what the rest of the world might perceive as knee-jerk, anarchic opposition gone wild. Indeed, the protests were notable for the high turnout of high school students - theoretically the future funders of the baby boom generation’s pensions.

“It is fair to say that very, very few had a real grasp of the issues involved,” Franco-American author Laurel Zuckerman notes. “There is an excitement to demonstrating which is very attractive and even fun. Many commentators have pointed out that demonstrating is a rite of passage in France, and I think this is true.”

And similar to the dominant media in the U.S., the French media did little to clarify the lack of knowledge of the specifics of the bill. Dominique Huret, in an editorial in Le Monde, lamented the media’s focus on the numbers of protesters, violent events, and comparisons to prior protests. “It is regrettable that the radio, television, and newspapers played such a small role as informers on this subject, satisfied with communicating the events.”

Ms. Zuckerman adds, “In general, the level of information about both the reforms and the motivations of the strikers was very poor, and I think that played a role. I don’t know if high school students would have joined demonstrations so enthusiastically if they had known that striking train drivers retire at 50, air traffic controllers at 52, and refinery workers on shifts at 55 - benefits for which the young will pay.”

But dismissing the violence and palpable anger of many of the protests as simply a sign of ignorance or just part of French culture would be incorrect. There is a deep dissatisfaction with the current administration’s handling of France’s economy. National debt, an unemployment rate that hovers around 9 percent, policies that afford relief for the highest tax brackets, a stagnant minimum wage, and social ills including discrimination that keeps ethnic minorities and those living outside city centers from decent paying jobs, violent expulsions of the Roma, and what is deplored as a turning toward the Puritan work ethic that includes longer work hours, fewer paid vacation days, and employment uncertainty make the opposition less surprising. Add to that Sarkozy’s reputation as the least popular president ever – a meager 6 percent of marketing and research firm BVA’s recent poll respondents felt that he was doing a good job, while 69 percent considered that he is doing a “very bad job.”

“There’s a feeling of profound injustice linked to the financial crisis, which was brought on by the financial sector, but endured by the working class,” opines Pierre Leroy, entrepreneur and supporter of the strikes. “People sense an imbalance of the distribution of profits created by labor, benefiting creation of capital at the expense of investment, which is the only means of creating jobs and decreasing unemployment, poverty, and instability.”

My aunt-in-law, Elise Armau, a supporter of the protestors who happens to be recently retired, explains, “I am very much in favor of reform. It’s urgent to stop creating deficits that our children will have to pay for. But this reform is unfair,” she continues. “Many people’s revenues are too low, and they live poorly because of it. … There are other ways to finance the retirement pensions, for example setting aside a greater percentage of the GDP, which is what many protesters are demanding. Hence the savory slogan, Pour la France d’en haut, des couilles en or, pour la France d’en bas, des nouilles encore (For the upper class French: golden nuts, for the lower class: more noodles).

Much of the world, myself included, initially looked on in shock and confusion as France’s public services shut down and thousands, then millions took to the streets to protest reforms that seem so vital in today’s lagging economy. In the U.S. the Obama administration is proposing similar retirement age increases for Social Security benefits based on similar logic: as life expectancy has increased, so should the age at which workers reap their hard-earned benefits. Will we see millions of Americans, of all walks of life, ages, and colors rise up in protest against a backward and unfair way of closing the deficit? I doubt it.

Indeed, the most recent American strikes protesting government reforms were against a public option for healthcare. Reports abroad of “grassroots” town hall participants shouting, insulting, and heckling representatives of the reform - sometimes even brandishing firearms - gave France a turn to wonder at the fury of American political activism. While both countries seem intent on protecting the status quo, it appears that only one country’s status quo benefits its citizens’ health and financial security.

About the Author:
Aralena Malone-Leroy
earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in French and international studies from Santa Clara University, and a master's degree in mass communications and journalism from San Jose State University. Aralena lives in France and is the news editor for The WIP.

5 comments on “Résiste: Reflecting on France’s Protests
  1. Eloisa Morra says:

    Great article Aralena, it’s a brilliant idea to compare American and French(European) political activism.
    Italian students are organizing a protest against the cuts of budget to Italian University promoted by the Goverment; it would be nice to analyze lights and shadows of the protest following your perspective.

  2. KWarthen says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful article, Aralena. I hope that the French have better luck protecting their middle class than the United States have done. As you point out so well, protest loses its force when the participants don’t appear to understand what they are fighting for, or whom they are fighting against..

  3. Aralena Malone-Leroy says:

    Eloisa, I would be very interested to read about Italian student activism, and I think they have every right to be outraged at govt. cuts to education. I can’t imagine a worse place to cut back on spending!

  4. Aralena Malone-Leroy says:

    KWarthen, you bring up an interesting point re. preserving a middle class. The French protests were also an attempt to keep the gap between wealthy and poor from widening, or at least to keep the poor from having to carry the weight of the wealthy classes excesses.

  5. Eloisa Morra says:

    You are right Aralena, cuts to education are an enormous political (and,of course, economical) mistake and show the shortshighted political vision of the current Italian Government. Also the Italian students protest against the cuts was done in order to preserv the right of middle-class families to have state universities of high quality.

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